by Ziggy Merritt
There’s a thousand and a half ways to go about writing up a review to a seminal album by one of the most enduring acts to come out of the 1960s alive. Trying to add some novel comment to a cultural touchstone, a fountain of inspiration for successive generations of artists, is not the most comforting thing to be tasked with as a writer. The album in question, Pet Sounds, has passed through the hands of musicians and entertainers alike, each taking away a kernel of inspiration that only adds on to the legacy of pop. As such it’s easy to view Pet Sounds less like an album and more of a template for the fifty decades of pop music that has followed it since its release in 1966. Yet like many influential compositions from the 20th century- Google the Parisian debut of Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring– its initial reception, at least here in the United States, was lukewarm at best. But then this only proves that forces of cultural change are not always sweeping and dramatic but gradual and resilient.
For the album’s half-century anniversary, the Reverberation Appreciation Society commissioned San Francisco producer Al Lover to compile a fitting tribute album, representing the entirety of Pet Sounds and more with bands that can directly trace their lineage to that album’s lush and innovative production.
There’s the more jagged distortion of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” covered by Indian Jewelry who amp up the jangle pop and faded, lo-fi vocals like many of their contemporaries, yet ease back from offering up a direct take on the original’s sunniness and pacing. The She’s covering “You Still Believe In Me” strips down the track to its elemental bare bones, favoring staggered percussion over the original’s sweeter edge of harpsichord.
Other interpretations are more deconstructed, such as the Boogarins’ cover of “Let’s Go Away For Awhile.” This cut takes cues from the orchestral meanderings of the original, here instilling a vaguely trip-hop breakdown at the 30-second mark, which precedes floating bits of ambient guitar and bass peppered with disembodied vocals. As the sole instrumental track on the original, the tribute here is wisely adapted to take liberties with that outline.
There are a few misses here of course. The attempt at multi-part harmony on Chris Catalena’s rendition of “God Only Knows” falls short of the mark, coming off instead as choppy and strained. This in turn is not helped by the slow, easy pace that quickly becomes tiresome even with the saving grace of saxophone and sleigh bells that call back to the original. “I Know There’s An Answer” from Christian Bland & The Revelators makes a similar mistake with its pacing yet trades in a misfire in harmony with vocals swallowed whole by an all-too-eager ode to stylistic Wall of Sound production.
It’s no surprise that some of the more innately engaging tributes from the collection are able to balance a more straight-forward take on the source material with the respective bands’ own characteristic predilections. Holy Wave’s “That’s Not Me” is a serene, dreamy take, bringing the subdued organ of the original to the forefront and letting the vocals coast along effortlessly through the hazy production. Immediately following this is the comforting tremolo provided by Morgan Delt on “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder).” Aided by a vocal range that captures the highs and lows of the original, Delt’s interpretation ends up being one of this tribute’s clear standouts. And as a tribute the album is deeply reverential to its source material often taking strides, whether purposeful or not, to highlight exactly what made Pet Sounds the cultural monolith it has become.